With the recent Golden Globe wins and predicted Oscar nominations for Stephen Daldrys “The Hours,“ media and literary attention allover the world has made a cause celebre out of Michael Cunninghams acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 1998 novel of the same name, and Virginia Woolfs “Mrs. Dalloway, the 1925 book on which “The Hours“ is based.
For many, the film is proving a springboard to familiarity with both of these works, as is often the case when a successful film springs forth from a work of literature. Whether pulp fiction like “Jaws,“ “The Exorcist,“ or “The Godfather,“ or something with more classic roots, such as a “Dr. Zhivago“ or “The English Patient,“ a popular movie can send fans scurrying out to buy the book, which has happened with the books from Cunningham and Woolf.
In case youre curious about either, the following might serve as a primer, and something that could assist in heightening your appreciation of the new film, which seems fast on its way to becoming one of 2002‘s most respected films. Hopefully, it will also steer you in the direction of the book itself, which has been hailed, and deservedly so, as a modern masterpiece.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The plot for the film adaptation of “The Hours“ remains close to its source, concentrating on two women from different generations whose stories are connected by “Mrs. Dalloway.“ In fact, author Cunningham even does a Hitchcockian cameo when he walks past Meryl Streep in one scene as she goes into a flower shop.
In 1949 Los Angeles, Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife played by Julianne Moore, is planning a birthday party for her husband, but she can‘t stop reading “Mrs. Dalloway.“ Years later in New York, Clarissa Vaughn (Streep), is also throwing a party for her former lover and now good friend Richard, a famous author dying of AIDS (Ed Harris). These two stories are simultaneously linked to the work and life of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) circa London 1923, who is writing “Mrs. Dalloway,“ a story about a woman throwing a party, and struggling with the emotional battles that will eventually lead her to take her own life.
As a novel, “The Hours“ is very much an open love letter to Woolf and “Dalloway,“ even while it acquits itself as its own unique entity. Woolf served as Cunninghams muse, and even his title is the working one Woolf used for her creation. In Cunninghams he cuts back and forth across time, seamlessly intertwining the lives of the three women, one example being that one of the characters has the same first name, Clarissa, as the heroine of Woolfs book, and that her situation mirrors Dalloway. Clarissa has even been nicknamed “Mrs. Dalloway“ by her friend Richard.
In regards to Laura, in an earlier chapter, Cunningham has Woolf starting to write the first line of “Mrs. Dalloway,“ which is “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.“ When the modernday housewife reads that line, she is transported from her own unhappy, stifled existence and plunged into Woolfs fictional universe, which was also the authors haven from her own demons. And so it goes, as two fictional characters, and one real life icon and one of her beloved works work in tandem with each other.
Crafting “The Hours“ had to have been a formidable challenge for Cunningham, and given that this was just his third novel (following “At Home at the End of the World“ and “Flesh and Blood“), the end result is passionate and moving, a compelling tribute to Woolfs genius, personal pain, and professional impact. Simply read the prologue of this often exquisite book, which begins with an account of Woolfs suicide in 1941, and I can guarantee that the hours you spend from that point on in “The Hours“ will be ones you will treasure.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Its a chicken-and-the-egg question as to whether one is better served by reading “The Hours“ or “Mrs. Dalloway“ first, but one thing is certain - these two books are companion pieces to each other.
Along with “To the Lighthouse,“ this is the other ground-breaking book by Woolf (1882-1941) that helped establish her as one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century as she transformed the art of the novel, in addition to authoring numerous collections of letters, journals, short stories, and essays.
“Mrs. Dalloway“ begins as Clarissa Dalloway, the 50-something wife of an English military policeman, is leaving her home in London on a beautiful June morning to buy flowers for a party she is having. That simple act begins a chain of events, such as watching a sky writing plane in the sky and listening to Big Ben toll away the hours in this day-in-the-life, that will link her existence with a number of others, such as a beau she turned down years earlier, her daughter Elizabeth, Elizabeths hostile teacher, and a shell shocked army veteran losing his own private battle with madness.
As Mrs. Dalloway readies herself for the evenings party, tensions mount and twists of fate occur that take the hostess to places of introspection and memories long left behind. The arrival on the scene of former suitor Peter Walsh gives way to recalling a tender friendship with Sally Seton, as Woolf has Mrs. Dalloway reflect on the complexities of relationships between and among the sexes: “It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together.... Her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?“
That sort of immersion into ones most private thoughts, balanced with vivid and richly detailed moments of everyday life, are part of why “Mrs. Dalloway“ has touched readers for generations, and its themes of love, loss, hope, choice, desire, responsibility, alliances, and regret not only paint a picture of a specific era in time, but resonate still today with grace and power, especially in their simplicity. And that, friends, is what makes for a classic.